Monday Brews: 8-18-14

It exists! And it’s awesome!

Gen Con 2014 is over and it was awesome! Why? Because I got to hang out with great friends of mine and because I got to hold, unwrap, punch, and play a production copy of Scoville! Special thanks are due to Jeremy, Adam, Ben, Mark and Mike for making Gen Con 2014 a memorable one.

If you are new to this blog, Scoville is my first published game design. It is published by Tasty Minstrel Games and should be available later this year, so put it on your Christmas lists! You can go pre-order it from your favorite local game store or the online game outlets.

So with Gen Con in the books, and with recently quitting on Brooklyn Bridge I feel refreshed and ready to move on to some exciting new designs. I have one that I’m keeping a secret, one that will occasionally mention, and The Grand Illusion, which I am openly designing and blogging about on this site.

But enough about that. Let’s check out the Boards & Barley that I’ve enjoyed over the past two weeks.

The Barley:

An excellent complement to Optimator!

An excellent complement to Optimator!

BARLEY SPOTLIGHT: Spaten Optimator

Why such a standard brew for the spotlight? Because it was enjoyed at the Rathskellar in Indianapolis with my friends. This has become a tradition for us. On Friday night we went to the Rathskellar and enjoyed beer, cigars, and a fantastic live band. Plus, attending the Rathskellar is a great way to escape the geek world of Gen Con for a few hours. We had a great time and I enjoyed a delicious 32 ounce Optimator! The picture on the right shows the appetizers we ordered (Sausage platter, Brat balls, Jalapeno poppers, and Chicken Cordon Bleu rolls).

The Boards:

BOARDS SPOTLIGHT: Scoville

How could it not be Scoville? I love the game even after over 100 plays. I love how a 2p play at Gen Con provided a situation that really tested me. The decisions are so interesting. The play changes from game to game with different players. As the fields grow from round to round there are more and more choices, so the game naturally ramps up. I love this game so much and I was so excited to crack open a new copy and get it to the table. Here are a few pictures to show how it looks. If you like how the peppers look, click on the picture and thumb it up on BoardGameGeek.com.

6 Player Scoville ready to go!

6 Player Scoville ready to go!

The amazing peppers!

The amazing peppers! (Click to go to BGG and thumb the pic!)

6 Player game in progress.

6 Player game in progress.

Here are the games I played prior to Gen Con:

Our Samurai Spirits were crushed in defeat!

Our Samurai Spirits were crushed in defeat!

And here are the games I played at or after Gen Con:

There was nothing on the Gen Con Preview that I felt was a “must-buy” this year but there were a few that I was interested in. The one I was most interested in was Instabul, which I bought.Here is a picture of the modular board:

5 Player game in progress.

5 Player game in progress.

In Istanbul each player also has a small player board of their own. The goal in the game is collect rubies. To do so you will need to manage your resources and money as well as utilize your location placement of your merchant and their assistants. It was an excellent game and well worthy of the Kennerspiel des Jahres award.

Surprise Hit #1: Camel Up

Camel Up was awesome. We played with 7 players at the Z-Man booth and we loved it. It won the Spiel des Jahres and when you play it you can understand why. I picked up a copy because it was fun, interactive, and plays up to 8 players!

Surprise Hit #2: Samurai Spirit

I am not normally a fan of cooperative games but this one had so much awesomeness that I can’t wait to play it again. It was a struggle. We lost badly. In fact, the first time we attempted the game we died after the first (of 3) rounds. There are some very interesting choices and some really cool combinations that can be done in the game. It was a lot of fun.

And here is a picture of my Gen Con 2014 haul. Several of these games came from the math trade, some were freebies. Missing from the picture are the King of Tokyo promo cards and the Tokaido promo cards and Eriku character promo.

I'm looking forward to playing all these!

I’m looking forward to playing all these!

Overall it was a great Gen Con. I’ll be writing another post this week about one specific experience from the convention. It was great to meet so many awesome people, especially those I follow on Twitter that I had never met in real life. I’m already looking ahead to Gen Con 2015 (partially because it is unlikely I’ll attend GrandCon, BGG.con or Origins before then).

Game Design Philosophy

GameDesignPhilosophy
After killing Brooklyn Bridge I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about who I am as a designer and what I want to design. So I sat down last night and examined the top 50 games on BGG to see what elements they had in common. My goal was to understand which elements are enjoyable to me and to understand how they are incorporated into some of the best games in the world.

What I ended up with was a list of five things that I feel are important to my game designs. Please note that this article discusses the things that I personally feel are important to good game designs. Your opinions will likely vary. I urge you to create a similar list that you can use as a tool to help you make sure your game design is going down a path that is acceptable to you.

I now realize that had I had this list before working on Brooklyn Bridge, it probably would have turned out to be a better game. I may attempt to re-design it now that I have this list to use as a design tool.

My previous design philosophy was simply to make fun games. That’s not a good philosophy because it is extremely difficult to measure or quantify.

What follows are 5 elements or guidelines that I will seek to follow when designing games. For each I will demonstrate how they exist in both the immensely popular Ticket to Ride and the soon-to-be immensely popular Scoville. Using these as a guideline will provide a measurable way to know whether or not what I am designing has the potential to be an enjoyable game.

1: Quick to Teach / Easy to Understand

This DOES NOT mean the game is simple or light.

This DOES mean that it can generally be set up in 5 minutes and taught in about another 5. I don’t want to spend 20 minutes setting up a game and then another 15 trying to teach it to people.

Ticket to Ride Example: TtR (or perhaps T2R to you) can be set up and explained in about 5 minutes total.

Scoville Example: Scoville requires a little more setup than this guideline but it can be taught in 5 minutes for sure.

Other successful games like The Settlers of Catan are relatively simple to set up and teach. Of course there are very successful games that do not quite meet these criteria. There’s nothing wrong with that. Remember, this is MY design philosophy. So the games I will design will likely meet these things.

2: Minimal “Exception” Rules

“Exception” rules are those that require an individual point of emphasis when teaching. The fewer of these types of rules in a game the “Quicker” and “Easier” it is to teach and understand. This guideline ties into the first one. I will not be designing games that have a long list of FAQs or “exception” rules.

Ticket to Ride Example: There are on the order of two exception rules. 1) You can’t draw two locomotives from the face up pile. 2) If there are ever three locomotives in the face up set then you replace all face up cards.

Scoville Example: There are slightly more than than TtR, but they apply during two phases. 1) You can bid zero and ties are broken from previous turn order. 2) Harvesting: No doubling back, No sharing or going through another player.

The idea here is that the rulebook should be streamlined and straight forward. If your game has a bunch of singular exceptions that need to be covered, I recommend putting that information on a player guide for each player. Then when teaching the game you can simply point out that there are some exceptions and that players should reference the guide.

3: Limited Actions or Choices Per Turn

One easy way to add tension in a game is to limit what players can do. Agricola does this with great success. Most Stefan Feld games do this very well. The idea is that while you may not have a lot of different choices to make, there is some tension in trying to choose the optimal choice.  Similarly you may have a lot of options but can only choose 1 or 2 per turn.

Limiting the number of actions or the number of choices a player has on their turn also has two notably positive effects:

  1. Downtime is minimized
  2. Analysis Paralysis is limited

Downtime decreases if a player only has a few options to choose from. Analysis paralysis, or a player’s inability to make a decision, is limited since there are only so many combinations of things to work through.

Ticket to Ride Example: On your turn you only have three options. 1) Draw train cards. 2) Draw Destination Tickets. 3) Play trains to the board. That’s it. It’s so simple. But the depth of the game comes from decisions like, “Should I draw train cards one more time or should I burn a locomotive card this turn?”

Scoville Example: Each round has four phases, each of which are simple. Bid, Plant, Harvest, Fulfill. Each phase is simple enough that you have a limited number of options. Choices include how much to bid, which pepper to plant, how to harvest, and what to fulfill.

This philosophy guideline was greatly influenced by my recent play of Attika. In Attika you have two choices: Draw tiles or build. That limitation is so stupidly simple and yet the game builds up as it moves along and is quite enjoyable. Which leads me to the next guideline.

4: Include a Natural Buildup

The idea here is that the decisions you are making during a game accelerate and either feel more tense or more important or hopefully both. Games do this differently. Some games build up because you have access to better/more resources. Other games build up because the game presents better scoring opportunities or something of the sort.

When a game builds up naturally it turns it into an emotional experience where you are drawn into the game. When you make a decision early in a game you don’t want a bad choice to destroy your chances. But when you make a decision late in the game you want a good choice to be able to greatly help you out.

Ticket to Ride Example: As the map fills up the decisions become more tense. You might begin to worry that a player will fill up a connection that you needed. Or you might worry that there are not enough turns left to complete all your destination tickets.

Scoville Example: As the fields are planted each round there are more/different cross-breeding opportunities. Your decision space opens up. As you get better peppers there is the sometimes tense choice of whether to plant it for the bonus points or save it and fulfill a recipe to prevent someone else from getting it.

Brooklyn Bridge had no build up at all. I think that good games should include some sort of build up or acceleration. If it fits naturally into the game, that’s even better. What I desire from fun games is that as the game builds up and things get more tense and exciting, that I am getting some sort of increased emotions from my gaming experience. Without a build up I feel like my game designs would lack that emotional aspect.

5: Players Should Be Rewarded

Continuing with the “emotion” idea, I feel it is important that players be able to be rewarded for the actions they take during the game. Point salad games, like several Feld games, do this on just about every turn. When every choice you make gives you points there is a natural positive emotion attached to that. On the other hand if the choices you make never reward you then you’ll likely not have a natural positive emotion during the game. There is something to the idea of moving your scoring marker around the board and seeing yourself jump past other players.

Ticket to Ride Example: A positive emotion and rewarding moment in TtR comes each time you complete a route. This is a secret positive emotion but it is present and it feels awesome.

Scoville Example: When players plant a better pepper and earn an award plaque from the Town Mayor there is a positive emotion and rewarding moment. They know that their action just earned them points that no other player will be able to match.

These types of rewards that provoke positive emotions will likely result in players enjoying the game more than an equivalent game that is void of rewards. I want to design games that will provoke positive emotions and one way to do that is by rewarding players.

Horizontal Rule
I wish I had written this article a long time ago. Having these guidelines in place will allow me to check off whether or not my current designs are meeting the criteria. That should be easy enough to recognize. If they don’t meet the criteria I’ll be able to tell and hopefully it will allow me to come up with design tweaks that turn my designs into awesome games.

What’s your design philosophy? I’d love to hear how yours differs from mine. Feel free to share in the comments. Thanks for reading!

When to Fold ‘em – Quitting on your Designs

I am calling it quits for now with the Brooklyn Bridge game design. This is the inspiration for this article.

So this begs the question: When do you quit on a game design?

You might think that would be as easy as asking if the game is any fun. But it’s not that simple. You see, there is this thing called “passion.” A lot of game designers utilize it when create their designs. I know I do. But let’s step back even further and discuss a designer’s philosophy.

Why do I design games?

This is an important question designers should ask themselves. Answers could be all over the map:

  • You want to earn bazillions of dollars
  • You like games
  • You want to win the Spiel des Jahres
  • You’re creative
  • You want people to like you because of your design
  • You’ve got some great game ideas
  • It’s what you love to do

Whatever the reason, it’s important that you understand the answer to the question of why you design games.

Once you’ve got that figured out, the answer to the first question, when to quit on a game design, can be more easily answered. Often it is important to remove the emotional side of game design before you can truly quit on a design. People put a lot of effort and time and money into their game designs. So to just quit on a design is like throwing all of that effort, time, and money out of the window. Sure, there are usually some takeaways from that design, but ultimately it’s a big loss.

Here is the reason I design games: it’s a fun hobby.

Therefore, if designing a game stops being fun, I dump it.

Why did I Quit on Brooklyn Bridge?

I was originally inspired to design a Brooklyn Bridge game when I was watching a BBC documentary about its construction. The discussion about the caissons was fascinating and I immediately had thoughts about a risk vs. reward mechanic built around how long workers would stay in the caisson. Sweet!

So I made a time based worker placement game about the Brooklyn Bridge. Workers could get sent to work in several different locations (Caissons, Brickyard, Cableyard, Training Office). Each turn the workers would advance some distance in those locations. The longer they advanced, the better the rewards when they would be removed. This is not dissimilar to riding the gears in Tzolk’in. But there was a big change… other players could help you advance even faster if you placed your workers correctly. That’s awesome!

That sounds great. But it didn’t work. That’s not to say it couldn’t work. I’m definitely keeping the mechanic for another design. It just didn’t all work for this design.

The game took too long. It felt same-y (meaning there wasn’t enough variability/replayability). And ultimately the decisions you made throughout the game didn’t get more tense or more interesting. That’s not good.

I got through about 15 playtests and after the final one I realized I just wasn’t enjoying working on this design. It was at that point that I detached emotionally from the game and felt at peace to let it go. I quit on the design.

I believe it has potential. I believe that are good elements in there. If a publisher wants it and is willing to develop it I would happily work with them. But I quit because I was no longer enjoying it.

Why do You Quit on your Game Designs?

I urge you to go back to my question of “Why Do You Design Games?”. Knowing the answer to that can greatly help you know when to quit on a design.

Most designs won’t succeed. As a designer it’s important to know when to give up on one and start on the next. If you spend too long on a design that doesn’t have a future or that isn’t enjoyable or that is unpublishable then maybe you should consider breaking up with the game. I’ve met a whole bunch of designers with tons of games that never made it. Some have been working on the same games for years. Others have thrown away games that are only a few days old. There is a level of recognition where they realized the game wasn’t worth it.

The sooner you can realize that a game isn’t deserving of your time, the sooner you can design one that is!

Monday Brews 7-28-14

There are only a few Mondays left before Gen Con! Aside from game design and development it was a decent week. My mother-in-law fixed out bathroom ceiling. My softball team won the championship (back-to-back seasons)! And I was inspired by a Euro game.

So let’s get right to the coverage of the Boards & Barley I enjoyed last week.

The Barley:

Dark, smooth, tasty… and potent!

BARLEY SPOTLIGHT:
Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

I had this too late in the evening to fully enjoy a 12%abv brew. However, I am looking forward to trying another one. This was one potent little beast with a woodsy character that made me wish I were sitting in a nice chair by a fireplace smoking a pipe. The inside of Bilbo Baggins’ home would suffice. Ultimately this beast was an enjoyable beer and I recommend you try it if you get a chance.

The Boards:

Four player render.

BOARDS SPOTLIGHT: Attika

Sometimes I am shocked by the simplicity of classic Euro games. In Attika you have two options on your turn: Draw buildings or Build buildings. Two choices. That’s it. How can you possibly make a compelling game from two choices? You make it compelling by adding tension, making it a race, limiting players options, and by adding a little bit of randomness so that not every game is identical. This game is so simple yet possesses an elegance that makes me jealous as a game designer. It’s not the greatest game ever made, but there is just something about it. It makes me want to start a game design by only giving players two options. It’s similar to games like Ticket to Ride where players only have three choices on their turn (play trains, draw train cards, draw route cards). That simplicity builds throughout the game and it makes for a pretty outstanding experience.

Designer’s Corner:

Such an old version. It's way better now.

Such an old version. It’s way better now.

As Gen Con approaches I find it is once again crunch time to prepare a game for demoing/playtesting. Last year I failed miserably to have Conclave ready to go. Though Conclave only had two or three real playtests so it didn’t deserve table time anyway. But I have found that I am still making some major changes to Brooklyn Bridge.

One issue is that it takes way too long. This has always been the case. One reason for that was because players would have to build the towers first, then they could work on the cable. Having this linear progression through the game combined with the mechanic for obtaining cable bundles caused a huge halt in the action and really killed the dynamic of the game.

So I am changing how it works. Now the cable will be an important aspect from the start of the game. Players will have to choose whether to contribute to the cable (long-term points) or contribute to the bridge (short-term points). Adding in a cable mechanic that forces players’ strategy from the start of the game should not only allow for quicker gameplay but also add a layer of decision space to the game.

Another change I made was to drop mortar from the game. Previously when players wanted to contribute to the bridge they would have to have one mortar per brick they were building. The result was that since players had to spend turns gaining bricks and other turns gaining mortar, the game slowed down. Now without mortar in the game it will be more of a fast-paced race where players will have more competition for building the bridge.

The final change I am looking forward to trying is that I dropped private scoring in favor of public scoring. I had created about 12 private scoring cards. These were horribly unbalanced and ultimately didn’t drive players’ strategy as much as I had hoped. So now I am converting the scoring conditions to a more Euro approach. This is accomplished by having some cards that are “Accomplishments” and having some cards that are endgame scoring conditions. For example, if players build 3 bricks in any one section of a tower they can take one of the scoring tokens for that accomplishment card. Then the scoring token is placed face down by their player mat and will be added to their score at the end of the game. This is pretty standard Euro fair and I think it will work quite well in this situation.

I’m excited about the current state of the game but I know I have a lot of work ahead of me. Many more playtests are required for this game before I’ll be happy with it, but progress is certainly being made!

Horizontal Rule

So what Boards & Barley have you been enjoying? How are your game designs coming along?

Grand Illusion: The Drafting Mechanic

Preliminary Logo

Today I continue with my open design for a game based on Victorian era magicians and illusionists. Two weeks ago I talked about the core mechanics of the game. I also mentioned the “currency” in the game being the different types of magic.

What this will ultimately boil down to is a set collection card game with a drafting mechanic and an inherent build up as players try to complete their secret Grand Illusion.

Note: I have not yet decided if I want each player’s Grand Illusion to be secret or not. If it is public then the drafting mechanic becomes more important as you can see what types of magic your neighbors may be working towards. And if you can see their magic types then you may want to take a sub-optimal card because it would have been a great card for them.

So let’s talk a bit about the drafting mechanic.

The Grand Illusion Drafting Mechanic

If you are unfamiliar with “drafting” here’s how it works:

  • You are dealt a bunch of cards.
  • You choose one card and keep it.
  • You pass the rest of the cards to your neighbor.
  • You receive the cards from your other neighbor.
  • You choose one of these new cards and keep it.
  • You pass the rest of the new cards to your neighbor.

Well, I’m not doing it quite like that. I want there to be a more random feel.

The struggle with making an awesome drafting mechanic is in the consideration of how you want players to feel throughout the process. I want the players to feel like magicians while playing this game. So how could my drafting mechanic incorporate that feeling?

I think there should be an element of sneakiness. Magicians utilize sleight of hand and I want an element similar to that. So I would want players to be able to have moments where choosing the right card was rewarding like a successful sleight of hand.

The question is: How do I accomplish that?

I would feel sneaky (or wise or clever) if:

  1. I put a bad card in someone else’s hand.
  2. I put a great card in a hand I knew I would receive.
  3. I was able to prevent another player from a great hand.
  4. I was able to craft a great hand for myself.

Those are a few things that would allow me to have a rewarding feeling and a feeling of accomplishment. Often, as a game designer, it is a challenge to take a concept of what you want and actually turn it into mechanics that meet that concept.

Concept to Mechanic

One way to accomplish this is to put out the Magic Trick cards on the table face up before the drafting occurs. This shows the players the types of tricks they have available to them that round. Then, once players have been dealt their cards, they will place one face up and one face down in front of them. Then:

  1. Pass to the left. Choose one card. Place face up on left neighbor’s pile.
  2. Pass to the left. Choose one card. Place face up on right neighbor’s pile.
  3. Pass to the left. Choose one card. Place face down on own pile.

What this creates is a magic hand of five cards. Three were chosen by you (one face up). One was chosen by each neighbor (face up). The other players may be able to remember what your final card was, but your first card will be a secret since you chose it before anyone passed their cards.

Now each player will have five cards in their hands. These cards will have the different currencies on them (the types of magic). In the middle of the table are the magic tricks that can be performed this round.

Players will use combinations of the magic types in their hands to fulfill as many magic tricks as they can. This fulfillment will be the topic of the next article on The Grand Illusion.

Hopefully this drafting mechanic will work to create an interesting dynamic between the cards one chooses to keep and the cards they choose to give to their neighbors.

Any thoughts about this? Remember, I would love to be designing this game with your feedback. Anything sound good, bad, or meh? Let me know.

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